The role of a sponsor in a virtual community of practice (Module 4, ISTE-CS 4)

I’d like to preface my post by saying there’s a lot of research to be found about CoPs in business. Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder’s (2002) reformulation of the communities of practice theory (compared to Wenger’s original work in 1998) is written in a way that appeals to the business world, so it didn’t surprise me that the research I found this week comes from business. I know it can be controversial to link education with business, but I think the research done on CoPs in business can certainly inform us as we try to implement them in education, even if we have to adjust or completely rethink some of that information.


This week we are turning our focus to the role of administration in supporting teachers in technology-related professional learning programs as we continue to investigate ISTE Coaching Standard 4: Professional development and program evaluation. This focus led me to my investigation question:

What does research say about the role of leadership in a community of practice (CoP) or virtual community of practice (VCoP)?

Leadership roles in CoPs

In my search, I quickly found research which uses the set of community roles identified through a study conducted by the Institute for Knowledge Management (Fontaine and Prusak, 2004):

• Subject matter experts
• Core team members
• Community members
• Community leaders
• Sponsors
• Facilitators
• Content coordinators
• Journalists
• Mentors
• Admin/Events coordinators
• Technologists (p. 125)

Bourhis, Dubé, and Jacob (2005) proposed adding this role to the above list:

• Coach (p. 26)

Among these roles, the role of sponsor piqued my interest. Fontaine and Prusak’s (2004) definition reads:

Sponsors, who’re generally not part of the community, are senior managers who recognize the strategic importance of the community and its contribution to the overall business objectives of the organization. Sponsors help secure needed resources, nurture and protect the community, and ensure its exposure in the organization. (p. 126)

Fontaine and Prusak (2004) list the primary responsibilities of the sponsor as follows:

• Tie the community and its benefits to the organization’s strategic objectives
• Measure and evaluate the community’s contributions to business objectives
• Allocate budget and resources for the community
• Advocate acceptance and recognition for the community
• Work with Community Leader to support additional community roles (pp. 127-128)

This role is intriguing to me because it puts the job of securing support from the larger body of “management” on an intermediate person in management, not on someone from the community. The sponsor is already, or has become, sold on the value of the CoP – they no longer need to be convinced – and they act as a fighting voice for the CoP within management; the job of the sponsor was found to require 5.7% of the sponsor’s time per week (p. 126), which amounts to slightly less than 2.5 hours in a 40 hour work week. What this means to me is that the community leader would focus on maintaining the support of a single person (the sponsor), rather than trying to win over the support of a large body of people (management in general). This seems like a more manageable task for the community leader, or for someone who sees the potential to develop a CoP in their workplace but is struggling to get the upper-level support needed.

How sponsors make a difference in VCoPs

I’m operating on the assumption that VCoPs can be used to support and extend the learning done in teacher professional development (PD). Whether the initial PD happens in person or virtually, giving the participants a virtual space to continue discussion seems like it could have a lot of potential to support their learning. I have a lot of questions about how to implement and encourage this sort of continued engagement, and when and how to develop that continued engagement into a VCoP. For this week, I found a study that narrows in on how management can support VCoPs.

Bourhis, Dubé, and Jacob (2005) report on the successful management practices of eight VCoPs. In their study, they use the community roles listed above from Fontaine and Prusak’s (2004) study, and the additional role of a coach who supports the community leader. In general, they found that “the leadership team, especially the organization management team and the sponsor, needs to take actions so as to ensure that the [community] leader, supported by his/her coach, can effectively play its role in the community” (p. 31).

In regard to the role of the sponsor in intentionally-form VCoPs, they report that even just the identity of the sponsor can have an impact on: (1)  the community members’ perceptions of how successful VCoP would be, and (2) the community members’ initial and continued involvement in the VCoP. I wish there was more information about what traits the sponsor should be identified as having in order for the identity of the sponsor to positively impact the community members’ participation and optimism that the VCoP will succeed.

As far as active support for a VCoP, the study found that the management team and sponsor can play a crucial role in: (1) selecting a strong community leader (if using a top-down approach when building a VCoP), (2) selecting the right coach to support the community leader, (3) providing resources needed for the VCoP, and (4) “helping solve major issues as they occur” (p. 33).

Conclusion

Together, these studies suggest that management can support a VCoP by helping the community leader fulfill his or her role, and the connection between management and the community leader is primarily supported by the sponsor. Despite Bourhis et al.’s (2005) study being done on virtual CoP’s, their findings on what management can do to support the VCoPs didn’t include a whole lot of information that relates to technology. What was mentioned was related to management providing funding for appropriate VCoP technology (p. 29) and replacing a community leader “because he could not adjust to the new software used by the VCoP” (p. 30).

As far as supporting community members in using the VCoP technology, Bourhis et al. (2005) describe this responsibility as being directed to community leaders in the VCoPs studied. Considering Fontaine and Prusak’s (2004) set of community roles, this suggests that in these VCoPs, the community leader also played the role of the technologist.


References

Bourhis, A., Dubé, L., & Jacob, R. (2005). The success of virtual communities of practice: The leadership factor. The Electronic Journal of Knowledge Management3(1), 23-34.

Fontaine, M., & Prusak, L. (2004). Keeping communities of practice afloat: Understanding and fostering roles in communities. In Lesser, E., & Prusak, L. (Eds.), Creating value with knowledge: Insights from the IBM Institute for Business Value (pp. 124-133). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. http://doi.org/10.1093/0195165128.001.0001

ISTE: International Society for Technology in Education. (2017). ISTE standards for coaches (2011). Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/standards/standards/standards-for-coaches

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge university press.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R. A., & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge. Harvard Business Press.

One thought on “The role of a sponsor in a virtual community of practice (Module 4, ISTE-CS 4)”

  1. Interesting post! I like the idea of sponsors. I wonder how it applies in an academic setting as far as remaining neutral or if sponsors may still push certain products, projects, or tools.

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